"Hello, hello, how can I reach you--huhhhh??"
The isolated voice of Atlantic recording artist Poe resonates over the monitors in DJ-turned-producer Markus Schulz's cramped home studio, located somewhere in the Mesa suburbs. A little bigger than most pantries, this sonic workshop is cluttered with state-of-the-art sampling equipment, antiquated analog keyboards and milk crates stuffed with 12-inch vinyl.
Poe's familiar query is from her recent hit "Hello." But gone is the original backing track to her Internet love plea. In its place are different, jazzier passing chords from an entirely different key.
And while the original "Hello" moved along at a conservative 92 beats per minute, Poe now administers her greeting at a bouncy 129 bpm--the effect is like a baboon heart transplanted into a turtle. Also, Poe's vocals don't even set foot onto the track until a five-minute barrage of sampled beats and phased keyboards have had their say.
Say hi to "Hello," the extended dance remix.
Whether major labels procure such remixes to help an alternative artist cross over to the dance market, or to use them as sneaky, subliminal advertising on the underground club crowd, the popularity of remixes--and the demand for same--is at an all-time high.
The recent string of dance-chart hits racked up by Valley remixers Markus Schulz, 28, and C.L. (Chris) McSpadden, 26, attests to the growing demand for underground club specialists who know what motivates people to get on the dance floor--and what keeps them there.
Tonight, Schulz is reviewing tapes of last night's Poe remix, and he isn't satisfied--particularly with the telltale verses, which he feels are starting to drag. "The verses, they aren't very late-night, like, say, two in the morning," he says, staring off into the monitors. "Right now, this sounds more like a 9:30 type song."
After much tinkering, Schulz solves the problem by editing out the song's cyber chat-room lingo completely and turning the line "don't let go"--a throwaway lyrical snippet in the original master--into a pulsating mantra.
Considering the Valley is not exactly an urban dance mecca, Schulz and McSpadden's accomplishments are remarkable. By day, they compile music for Hot Mix, a Top 40-dance radio show syndicated in 120 cities across the country, including all with an NBA basketball team. In addition, they host what Schulz describes as a "push the envelope" weekly dance-music show called The Edge Factor, which broadcasts exclusively in Phoenix on KEDJ-FM (106.3) (1 to 5 a.m. Sundays).
By night, the duo alternates between creating its own, original dance tracks and refashioning the work of others under its remix partnership, Plastik Productions. Finally, Schulz spins records at the Works every weekend.
The Plastik men are relatively anonymous in their hometown, but in Europe, remixes bearing their names and the legend "Edge Factor Mix" are eagerly anticipated by club DJs.
"People in London see 'remixed by Markus Schulz and Chris McSpadden in Arizona' and right away it has a zing to it," Schulz says. "Like if you saw something remixed by someone in Egypt. You'd be interested."
"We don't class ourselves as East or West Coast producers," continues McSpadden. "We think of us as being from Arizona. We don't even say 'Phoenix.' When you say 'Arizona,' people think of the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and that's where we get a lot of inspiration, not from the metropolitan Phoenix area."
For the last four years, Schulz and McSpadden's home studios have hosted the disembodied voices of such chanteuses as Madonna, Bette Midler and even RuPaul, as well as United Kingdom luminaries like Blue Amazon, Technotronic and Everything but the Girl.
None of the aforementioned artists has met Schulz and McSpadden in the flesh, but all signed off on the dance remixes the team sweated out in their confined house quarters. "It's always nice when the artist calls and thanks us afterwards," says Schulz. "The whole DJ-as-artist thing doesn't get as much respect as it should. When people think of DJs, they think of some guy with a drink in his hand, spinning records at a bar mitzvah."
"Yeah, people think it's just pressing a button. They don't realize there's a lot of brain work involved just getting in the right thought mode," adds McSpadden.
To that end, the duo eats at the same restaurant--the Country Glazed Ham in Scottsdale--every day because, Schulz says, ". . . it simplifies things. You don't use your creative mind to wonder 'where am I gonna eat today.' You save all that for the studio."
Once he's in the studio, Schulz says, he uses a framed poster on the wall to gauge when his bass frequencies have entered the kill zone. "When I hear it start to rattle, I know it's going to shake the siding at the Works." Anal-retentive home audiophiles flip out at the mere mention of speaker rumble, but Schulz and McSpadden embrace the taboo.
"A lot of music on the radio is meant to be background noise," McSpadden explains. "What we do is forefront music. It's music that gets your attention immediately . . ."
Schulz finishes the thought: ". . . and takes you on a wild roller-coaster ride."
Schulz's own dramatic rise began about four years ago, when they both started building home studios and comparing notes on equipment. Each had the talent and hardware to make records on his own, but decided to make a record together for a lark. McSpadden had more technical expertise and a working knowledge of musical theory, Schulz a knack for simplifying beats and stripping down mixes to lean, fighting form. The combo clicked.
"Back then, we called ourselves Esenem [pronounced "S&M"] for Schulz and McSpadden," says Schulz. "Our very first collaboration, 'Dream State,' came out on a cool underground label out of L.A. called Crap Records." Lucky for them, the record's fortunes didn't torpedo down the toilet, and got the team a lot of positive attention.
Schulz and McSpadden began releasing their own work on Plastik Records and pitching the A&R reps they knew at major labels for a shot at a high-profile remix. But when they finally scored a hit, it wasn't with their weapon of choice.
"I'd been bugging Epic Records to give us a project. At first, when I heard who it was, I said 'no way,'" Schulz recalls with feigned horror. "Then the A&R rep played it to me over the phone and I was amazed that she really could sing." The song was a remake of Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and the artist was Sandra Bernhard. "It was our first paycheck and first Top 20 record on the Billboard dance chart," says McSpadden, grinning.
Ironically, where Bernhard trod, ex-gal pal Madonna was soon to follow.
"A friend at Warner Bros./Sire Records was trying to get us to play 'Love Don't Live Here Anymore' at the club," remembers Schulz. "I laughed at him because it was a slow ballad. But I knew of all these bootlegs floating around of a Sade ballad that was remixed so I said, 'What's the possibility of hooking me up with an a cappella track of the song and letting us do a remix?' I was really surprised when we got the DAT tape of Madonna's vocals in the mail.
"Then, I thought it would just be something we'd have to play when we do a gig or event somewhere so we'd have something that no one else in the world would have, an exclusive remix of Madonna. I didn't think it would ever come out."
Warner Bros. sent Plastik's remix to Madonna while she was on location for Evita, and she reportedly loved what she heard and approved its release. "They did 1,000, 2,000 copies that went to DJs and radio stations to see if it might stick to the wall," says McSpadden.
It did. In New York record specialty shops, Plastik's Madonna remix is stuck on the wall with a $200 price tag. "And we had, like, 20 of 'em we gave away to friends," mourns Schulz.
McSpadden says there is talk of releasing the remix as the B-side to Madonna's next single from the Evita soundtrack.
With that kind of star power dressing up their resumes, Schulz and McSpadden say they're getting more selective about who they let in their speakers.
"We've been trying to barometer the artists we work with now," says McSpadden. "We used to do anything, even something that wasn't that great, just to get our foot in the door and build some credibility with our friends at the label. If you can take something that's absolutely horrendous and make it awesome, you get a lot of credibility. How many times have you heard a cool remix of a horrible song? Armand Van Heldon did remixes of Ace of Base and made a name for himself because he just tore it out, y'know?"
"We went about it the wrong way when we were doing horrible artists," says Schulz. "We were trying to enhance the artists, when in reality what the artist needed was a complete butchering job. We should've enhanced us, done our flavor, and just used the artist's vocal samples."
With all the incoming remixes, the pair often likes to enlist the help of a small number of musician friends, particularly keyboardists, like Roger Wade, who specializes in changing chord sequences, and Rodney "R.K." Jackson and Brian Stewart, who add gospel and jazz flourishes to Plastik's arsenal. Neither Schulz nor McSpadden considers himself "a player," but both express a desire to work with more live instruments on future releases.
It's now a few minutes after opening on a Friday night at the Works--time to see how the Poe remix holds up. Like a two-in-the-morning kind of song. If the "Hello" remix sounds too innocuous to the early birds straggling into the club, it's back to the mixing board. Schulz goes on a tour of favorite spots to stand in the club to watch the crowd and check for woofer vibration. He's happy with what he sees and feels. The remix is ready.
Next, it's back to the DJ booth to spin some of his new favorites. Many of the European releases Schulz plays favor long "dropouts," where the music stands suspended in silence for what seems like an eternity.
"When people are X'ing, a five-minute dropout can seem like 30 seconds," he grins, head bopping up and down to the reestablished beat. "A good light man can take that and turn it into a moment. It's a breather after constant beats all night long."
A good dance remix, Schulz explains, will take a few minutes to establish the beat before the vocals come in--giving a club DJ time to mix one remix in as he takes the other out. Once the hook is set, the pretty, tripped-out vocals come in for a while, then give way to an interlude that gives the DJ the opportunity to either mix the record out or let it play for another cycle, depending on the crowd's vibe.
Schulz starts to bring some of Plastik's greatest hits into the mix. The Works audience is oblivious that the DJ is also, in this case, the creator of the sounds. Schulz says he doesn't mind. "I like the fact that I can walk around and get an honest appraisal of our work."
In the fast-paced world of dance music, though, sounds can become obsolete overnight, and no one can afford to rest on his laurels. Immediately afoot for Schulz and McSpadden are plans to reactivate their custom label Plastik Records and do more original work.
"We put out about seven records here in the States about three years ago, but we've been so busy with remixes that we haven't put out more original stuff."
Schulz smiles. "But if we get the call to remix the new Pet Shop Boys record, we'll go, 'What original project?'
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